The Ultimate Guide to Choosing a Safe Vehicle

December 4, 2014

According to Statistics Canada, Canadians spend an average of 23.7 minutes commuting by car to work each day, a number that easily adds up to almost 200 hours per year. That’s a considerable amount of time on roads that can be dangerous at times. There are 160,000 collisions in Canada each year, according to the Transportation Safety Board. In 2012, this resulted in 2,077 fatalities and 165,172 injuries. With stats like these, it’s easy to see why choosing a safe vehicle is high on the list of priorities for consumers.

For the United States, In 2012, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were almost 9.8 million traffic crashes involving cars and light trucks. When you also consider the Texas A&M study that found that Americans spend approximately “38 hours each year in traffic,” it’s easy to see why choosing a safe vehicle is high on the list of priorities for consumers.

Because it matters to you, it matters to us and that’s why the ComparaSave team has pulled together the following resource guide to help you make a safe vehicle choice for you and your family.

The Basics

Consult safety experts. There are many organizations out there that assess how safe different types of vehicles are. These include:

By utilizing these organizations’ websites, you can make smarter choices about the next vehicle you buy. They organizations’ websites can be used to:

  • Check to see if the vehicle has been recalled. Even though it is primarily US-based, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration provides an easy and convenient way to search safety recalls and complaints for vehicles, tires, and other equipment. For Canadian content, head on over to Transport Canada’s Road Safety Recalls Database to see if your vehicle, child car seat or tires could be subject to a recall.
  • Get a vehicle history. Buying a used car without knowing its history can lead to safety issues and other costly problems. Getting a vehicle history can provide you with information that helps you ensure you’re buying a safe vehicle. The DMV site linked is an American resource, but Canadians can utilize services such as Carproof and Carfax.
  • Research safety ratings. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gives safety awards to the safest vehicles. It tests vehicles on crashworthiness, i.e., “how well a vehicle protects its occupants in a crash,” and crash avoidance and mitigation. Vehicles are awarded ratings of good, acceptable, marginal, or poor for crashworthiness. For crash avoidance and mitigation, vehicles are awarded ratings of basic, advanced, or superior.
  • Know how to inspect a used vehicle. Consumer Reports explains how to give a used vehicle a thorough inspection to ensure that it’s safe and reliable. The article takes you through how to inspect the entire vehicle, including advice on checking exterior elements, such as body condition and glass; interior elements, such as seats and pedals; and engine components, such as fluid levels and the radiator.

Check out these new vehicles. Car and Driver presents information on its list of the “Top 10 Safe Vehicles for Less than $25,000.” It provides safety assessments for each of the following vehicles:

Check out these videos on car safety. The New Zealand Transport Agency created RightCar, a website that helps car buyers make safe choices. Though the following videos are for New Zealand citizens, much of the information is applicable to car buyers everywhere:

If you’re buying a vehicle for a teen, there are a few unique elements that need to be taken into consideration. KANETIX has compiled this handy list of the top safety recommendations for teens.

Make sure you’re buying from a reliable dealer. One challenge of buying a new, safe vehicle is finding a trustworthy car dealer. This article provides advice on how to find “dependable, fair and honest car dealerships.” It recommends checking with the Better Business Bureau or seeking out local dealerships that have stood the test of time. Often, they’ve been able to do so by maintaining high standards.

Part-by-Part Checklists


Do they make a noise? The Car Care Council provides information on what to look for in order to determine whether a vehicle’s brakes are faulty. For example, if you hear a noise, such as a screeching, grinding or clicking, then the brakes should be inspected.

Is there an anti-lock braking system? Anti-lock braking systems provide many safety benefits. This article explains how ABS systems work and answers common questions about them.

Do they respond poorly? You’ll want to watch your brakes for certain characteristics that could suggest the vehicle needs new brakes. Does your foot “sink” to the floor in pressing the brake pedal? If so, the vehicle might have an air or brake fluid leak. Does the vehicle “pull” to one side when braking? If so, the brake linings may be “wearing unevenly.” Read this article for more tips.

What kind of brake pads are in use? Brake pads are an important component of a vehicle’s braking system. This article provides an overview of what you need to know about brake pads and explains how to know when they need to be replaced. When it comes to replacement pads, the article notes, looking for a certified label is a good course of action. So, if you’re buying a used vehicle, ask the owner if the replacement pads meet certification standards.


What is the tread depth? One way you can immediately check a tire’s tread depth is by placing a penny upside-down into one of the tread grooves. If all of Lincoln’s head is visible, it’s time for new tires. In Canadian terms you’ve got two options. If you’ve still got a pennies lying around, insert the penny into the tread with the Queen-side facing you, head first. A tire is worn out and should be replaced when the tread is no deeper than the top of the Queen’s crown. If you don’t have any pennies, use a dime. Insert the dime into a groove. If you can see the top of the sails of the Bluenose, it is time to replace the tire.

What is the maximum load? Overloading your vehicle can be very dangerous. The NHTSA recommends that if you’re purchasing a vehicle and plan to carry heavy loads, check the tire information placard to make sure the tires will be able to handle it.

Have you checked the spare? Your spare tire should meet the same requirements regarding tread depth as the other tires. As this article notes, if you’re buying a used car, make sure you verify the age of the spare. The conditions in which spares are stored—under a truck or in the trunk of a car—can affect their condition.

Do the tires need to be replaced? If you find that the tires of the vehicle need to be replaced, this “Replacement Tire Selection Manual” created by Bridgestone-Firestone provides comprehensive information on what to look for in a set of tires and which factors to consider before choosing.


Are front airbags present? There are different kinds of airbags that are designed to protect vehicle occupants in a head-on or frontal crash. This article presents the different kinds of front airbags you might want your new vehicle to have.

Does the car have side airbags? As this article explains, side impact crashes are the most likely to be fatal. It explains that side airbags are a very important safety feature and suggests looking for a vehicle with side head airbags, if possible. At minimum, it says the vehicle you choose should have torso airbags for front seat occupants.

Does the vehicle feature new advanced airbag technologies? The Montana Department of Transportation presents the “What You Need to Know about Air Bags” guide. One section explains the new airbag technologies that are now available. These technologies can modify inflation based on the impact of a crash and can also use sensing devices to determine whether the person in a vehicle seat is a child or an adult.

Are the airbags working properly? This Q&A on airbags from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety provides an abundance of great information about airbags. In the answer to the question, “What maintenance do airbags require? When do they need to be replaced?,” the IIHS explains that typically airbags last the life of the car. When buying a vehicle, it advises that you can check that the airbags are working properly by looking for a warning light on the instrument panel. When you turn the vehicle on, the warning light should illuminate briefly. If it doesn’t, or if it stays on or flashes, the vehicle’s airbags should be checked.


Are any red flags present? This list tells you what to look for when looking under the hood of the used vehicle you’re considering buying. It recommends taking a small flashlight with you to help with the examination. Signs that the engine hasn’t been maintained properly or that problems could be present include the smell of burnt oil, battery corrosion, and leaks.

Is the check engine light on? This top 10 list outlines the most common repairs that may be needed if a vehicle’s check engine light is on. They are:

Is the engine the right size for your needs? Choosing the right engine size is important as engine size affects power and fuel economy. This article notes that having a better understanding of these factors will help you make the right car-buying decision for your needs.

Is the cooling system working properly? This article provides advice from the Car Care Council on factors that might indicate there is a problem with a vehicle’s cooling system. As the article explains, “overheating, leaks, a sweet smell of antifreeze, and repeatedly needing to add antifreeze” are symptoms of cooling system problems.

Safety and Design Features

Are the seat belts in good condition? This PowerPoint presentation on seatbelt safety explains that vehicle buyers often overlook seatbelts. It provides tips on how to inspect a seatbelt. For example, it advises vehicle buyers to look for fabric rotting or seam deterioration and explains how to test retractors. It also provides other great advice on how to most effectively use seatbelts.

Does it have a blind spot warning system? What are they, how do they work, why could they be useful to drivers, and which automakers are using them?

Does it have traction control and all-wheel drive? Reader’s Digest explains how traction control and all-wheel drive can work together to give drivers more stability, noting that if a vehicle has all-wheel drive, but no traction control, drive wheel slipping isn’t prevented—a factor vehicle buyers should keep in mind.

Does it have a forward-collision avoidance system? The IIHS estimates thatas many as 1.2 million crashes could be stopped or mitigated each year if all vehicles had this feature,” which is also known as a pre-crash warning system. These systems alert drivers via visual and auditory clues when they’re in danger of colliding with another vehicle or object.

What are the vehicle’s crumple zones? This article offers a comprehensive look at how crumple zones work. It explains that crumple zones are the areas of a vehicle designed to crumple in order to protect its occupants from impact in a crash. It also informs readers how crumple zones work with other safety features, such as airbags, to keep vehicle occupants as safe as possible. Here are links to each of the article’s five parts:

Does the vehicle place design over safety? AARP explains how automakers juggle consumers’ demands for sleeker vehicle designs with ensuring they’re creating safe vehicles. For example, certain design factors, such as smaller windows, have decreased driver visibility, causing a safety risk. This article takes a look at what automakers are doing to solve the design versus safety issue.

Remember, choosing a safe vehicle not only helps protect you and your family in the event of a collision, but it can also help save you money on your auto insurance. Many insurers also keep a list of what they deem to be the safest vehicles, which they will happily provide you with upon request. If you have any questions, be sure to talk to your provider to find out how safety features can help you lower your auto insurance premiums.

Additional Resources

IIHS Top Safety Picks By Year

Eight Steps to Buying a New Car

Used Car Buying Guide

Consumer Reports’ Compare Safety Ratings

Safe Buying Tips

Guide for First-Time New Car Buyers

Guide to Buying a New Car